Fly By Night

Mosca Mye’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her with her father, the meticulously minded scholar, Quillam Mye. Although Quillam “felt a brief calm at the idea of turning his daughter into a freak by teaching her letters,” he couldn’t help himself. If he’d had no child to teach, he’d have taught the cat. The two lived in the Fractured Realm for eight years, until Quillam died, leaving Mosca in the care of her uncle in the village of Chough.

When Mosca was 12, she’d had enough. When the traveler and storyteller Eponymous Clent came to town, she saw her way out, so she took her best friend, a goose named Saracen, and asked him for a job. But first she had to break him out of prison. And then they had to hurry away because she’d set her uncle’s mill on fire.

This novel by Frances Hardinge reads like fantasy, but there’s not actually any definitive magic in it. It’s just an alternate world with a full, rich history. The people of the Fractured Kingdom pray to gods known as “The Beloved,” but whether the Beloved are real is uncertain. The realm itself has suffered from war between Royalists and Parliamentarians and is now in an uneasy state of peace, presided over by several tradesmens’ guilds. Most notable are the Stationers, who control and approve all written material, and the Locksmiths, who act as law enforcement. Watermen patrol the rivers, there’s a secret school and floating coffee houses and a mysterious highwayman a dazzlingly beautiful sister to a Duke.

But the engine that keeps the story going is the practical and hard-headed and free-thinking Mosca Mye. Mosca was taught to read and loves words. Living with her uncle, she was “starved of words”:

She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavorless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them.

It’s no wonder that Mosca was willing to risk herself to go away with Clent. He offered what she hungered for. And it’s not just words—it’s travel and adventure and the chance to make a best friend who doesn’t have feathers.

And Mosca finds adventure. Her curiosity puts her in the middle of some complex intrigues, where it’s never clear who to believe. Hardinge shows that Mosca’s lack of exposure to the world has made her vulnerable but her good sense and keen observation skills save her again and again. She has to think things through, and she gets on the wrong track sometimes, but her mind is always working, not accepting everything at face value, but not going into every situation assuming the worst either. She has a wonderful mix of skepticism and openness.

This book is also often very funny. Sometimes Mosca’s straightforward way of talking made me laugh, and then there are things like these crimes, etched into the Chiding Stone of Chough:

“Mayfly Haxfeather, for Reducing Her Husband to Shreds with the Lashings of Her Tongue,” and … “Sop Snatchell, for Most Willful and Continual Gainsaying.”

Saracen the Goose also provides comic relief, although I worried about him whenever Mosca would stow him in boxes and carry him around. Having a goose for a friend can be inconvenient for both girl and goose.

Mosca’s adventures continue in Fly Trap. I look forward to reading it and more of Hardinge’s books!

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction | 3 Comments

High Dive

It’s 1984, and 19-year-old Freya is working at the hotel her father manages in Brighton, wondering about her future. Her father, Moose, is hoping that the planned visit from Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet will bring him a promotion. And in Northern Ireland, a man named Dan is planning his own trip to Brighton as part of an IRA plot.

Jonathan Lee uses the September 1984 planting of a bomb at Brighton’s Grand Hotel as the backdrop for this novel, although the three major characters are themselves fiction. And for most of the book, their lives, particularly Freya and Moose’s are pretty ordinary. Only Dan understands what’s coming, and he’s not some impassioned ideologue counting the seconds till the explosion. He did the job he was asked to do, planting a bomb, and he wonders whether it was the right thing and what the results would be. But it’s a quiet wondering.

This book is a great example of a novel that gets everything technically correct but still doesn’t quite win me over. I can’t think of a single specific criticism of the book, but I just couldn’t muster up much interest in it. It’s an ordinary and competent work of literary fiction. Lee alternates among the three characters, showing their thoughts and activities in the days leading up to the bombing and including occasional  flashbacks to the years of choices that brought them to where they are. The novel opens, for example, with a flashback to Dan’s initiation into the IRA. It’s one of the book’s more gripping moments. The rest of the narrative dwells on ordinary life.

That’s not to say that ordinary life isn’t fraught with drama. Moose, stressed out with preparation for the prime minister’s visit, has a heart attack. Freya starts seeing someone new and puts a friendship in jeopardy. There’s drama, but it’s ordinary drama. I suppose Lee is trying to show that lives touched by headline-making tragedy are ordinary lives right up until that moment, and those ordinary lives are worth caring about. And I cared, but not in a way that made me love this book.

I don’t know if my mood was the problem or if the book is just too competent without being risky. I liked this book well enough, and I’m not sorry to have read it, but it just seemed like formulaic literary fiction to me. There was nothing to make me love it.

Posted in Fiction | 5 Comments


When I picked up this novel by Natsuo Kirino (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder), I thought it was a feminist revenge fantasy—a group of women banding together to fight back against the men who hurt them. Although I have reservations about revenge fantasy, I was kind of in the mood for angry women fighting back. But Out is more complicated than what I expected. And, ultimately, I found it frustrating. So frustrating that I frightened the cat when I threw it across the room after finishing.

I will note now that this is a thriller that relies to some extent on the element of surprise, but I will be discussing the plot in some detail. I will try to be vague about the biggest shocks and twists, but I will dig into the ending near the end of this review. So bear that in mind if you don’t like spoilers.

The main characters in Out are four women who work the night shift in a factory that makes boxed lunches. The work is miserable, but all four women need the work, and they can make more money for less hours working overnight. All four face different types of misery at home, where they are expected to care for others who don’t offer any care or appreciation in return. Yayoi, however, is perhaps the worst off. Her husband has gambled away all their money and has started beating Yayoi.

The revenge element of the plot takes hold when Yayoi, full of rage and fear, strangles her husband with a belt. Not knowing what to do, she calls Masako, the most level-headed of the women, to help her get rid of the body. Masako enlists Kuniko and Yoshie to help her cut up the body and dispose of the parts. From here, the numbing horror of these women’s lives turns into a different kind of horror.

Instead of turning the story into the woman power narrative I expected, Kirino has the four women turn on each other, even as they try to protect each other. They ask Yayoi to pay them for their work, and then they deceive each other over the amounts they’re getting. When parts of the body are discovered and a former colleague of Masako’s figures out what happened, he offers them a chance to turn their skill at dismemberment into a side business. And this creates more opportunities for bickering.

Although I appreciated that Kirino was willing to create unlikable characters, I had trouble with the idea that this is a feminist thriller when the women end up turning on each other the way they do. To be clear, the book doesn’t need to be feminist to be good, and women don’t have to like each other to be feminist, but the deceitfulness seemed to draw on misogynist stereotypes.

Even more frustrating was the book’s characterization of Kuniko. Even when Masako, Yayoi, and Yoshie are not always likable, we’re given lots of reasons to sympathize with them. But Kuniko is consistently presented as a figure of ridicule. She spends too much money and thus is deeply in debt, her husband has abandoned her, she can’t get a better job, she screws up at the body disposal, and she’s fat (THE HORROR!). And, on top of that, her ultimate fate is presented with such cruelty and so little sympathy that I nearly ended up giving up on the book right then.

I didn’t give up. Perhaps I should have. Because there’s another character I haven’t mentioned—Satake. Satake is a club owner and a convicted murderer and rapist. He’s presented early on as someone who has reformed, who regrets what happened but who still has issues with women. On the night that Yayoi killed her husband, Satake was seen beating him up. The police pick him up, but when they can’t pin a murder charge on him, they let him go, but his reputation and his business are shot. And now he’s determined to find the real murderer.

The final chapters of the book present a sort of cat-and-mouse game, with Satake pursuing ringleader Masako. And the final confrontation, well, it infuriated me.

This is a book where women get punished, and that’s nowhere more evident than in the final chapters, where we’re subjected to extraordinarily brutal rapes, presented from the point of view of both the rapist and his victim. And in the end, there’s an attempt to put Masako and Satake on the same moral level. He rapes and murders. She cuts up bodies. THESE ARE NOT THE SAME! But Masako seems to accept that judgment, to see him as her soul mate or some such thing (?!?!?!?!). Because her body responds to him, they are one (?!?!?!?) And when she fights back and wins, she still suffers for it (?!?!?!).

Much of the book focuses on women pushing back against limitations and ending up in an even bigger mess. If I squint, I can see this as commentary on the futility of action in a world where societal expectations of meekness and compliance are so powerful. And perhaps that’s what Kirino was going for. But it builds on so many stereotypes about women and false notions about rape that I cannot accept this even as an expose of malignant patriarchy. It’s possible that as an American, I’m missing some nuance that a Japanese reader would pick up on, but as an American, I can’t recommend this book.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 7 Comments

Multiple Choice

This book by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra and translated by Megan McDowell is written in the form of a standardized test.

There’s a section where you have to choose the word that doesn’t relate in any way to the heading or the other words listed, like so:

A. backlist
B. checklist
C. playlist
D. shitlist
E. novelist

Often, there’s no clear answer, not because the questions are difficult but because they’re unsolvable. But the wordplay is pretty amusing.

Other sections involve putting a series of sentences in the best order, filling in the blacks in incomplete sentences, eliminating sentences from a series of stories, and answering comprehension questions about a series of stories. In each case, readers are given a list of options, forcing you to choose from a set of sometimes unsatisfying options.

The point, in part, seems to be to show how multiple choice standardized tests can shut down creative thought, and it does here. When, for example, we’re asked to put a series of sentences in order, we might find that the most arresting version of the new, reimagined story isn’t even one of the options. Or all the options are equally appealing. Or all the options are exactly the same. In the sentence-elimination section, it might be possible to eliminate sentences that leave the sense of the story in place but lose some kernel of truth. And the reading comprehension section mixes basic, fact-based answers with answers that get at a deeper meaning and answers that may be literally accurate but miss the point.

The test, as it turns out, is impossible. Truth can’t be boiled down to a series of straightforward choices.

Many of the questions also get at elements of living under a dictatorship. Or so the reviews that I’ve read tell me. Pinochet’s name gets mentioned, so certainly that period of Chile’s history is on Zambra’s mind. But, to me, it’s about living in any sort of environment where you’re forced into impossible choices or where you can’t quite tell your whole story.

The form of this book interested me very much, but I’m still working out whether I actually liked it. My initial reaction was that I liked the concept more than the execution. But I think it could benefit from more than one reading. I’ve browsed through bits of it a second time, and it’s grown on me. But I’m still in my phase of preferring straighforward story-telling over experiments in form, so it may just not be a book I’m going to love right now.

Posted in Fiction | 10 Comments

The Man in the High Castle

At the beginning of this year, I was completely hooked on the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. I’d never read the novel, so I decided that it would be a good thing to do as I’m eagerly awaiting season 3 of the series.

Both the Amazon series and the novel are set in a version of 1962 in which the United States and its allies lost World War II. The U.S. is now split into three areas, the Pacific States, governed by Japan; the Nazi Reich, covering most of the eastern U.S.; and the neutral zone, running along the Rockies.

It’s a creative premise, and Dick deserves full credit for that. But Frank Spotnitz, creator of the series, took that amazing concept and created an exciting story with compelling characters that the novel lacks. Several characters from the novel—Frank, Ed, Juliana, Tagomi, Childan—appear in the series, but they’re more fully fleshed out. In the novel, they’re all kind of bland, and I had little reason to care for them. What caring I did have usually came from my interest in the TV version of these characters. They just don’t come alive on the page at all.

And the story doesn’t offer much either. There are three parallel plots that barely touch. One follows Trade Minister Tagomi as he manages a visit from a Swedish businessman who turns out to be a German defector, a particularly tricky situation when the German chancellor, Martin Bormann, dies. Then there’s the plot involving Frank and Ed’s attempt to start a business designing and crafting jewelry, which they offer to Childan for sale along with the Americana he offers in his antique store. There’s moderate tension here, because Frank is secretly a Jew and he risks getting caught by the Japanese and turned over to the Germans. In the neutral zone, Juliana, Frank’s ex-wife, teaches Judo and eventually hooks up with a man named Joe who promises to take her to meet the author of a popular novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is an alternate history in which Japan and Germany lost the war, although it’s not our history. Still, it captures Juliana’s imagination, and the novel’s existence brings out a couple of pleasingly ambiguous moments toward the end of the book. The I Ching also figures heavily in the plot, as characters use it to guide their decisions.

I think, in offering such a bland plot, Dick might be showing how even tremendous horrors can start to feel ordinary in time. The Americans of this world have gotten used to being governed by the Japanese. There’s no sign of a resistance, and the Americans’ English has even become slightly broken. The reinstitution of slavery and extermination of the Jews are facts of life, not even remarked on. In that sense, this book is a horror in a way that the TV series is not. But a bland plot that makes a point is still bland.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments


homegoingAs I’ve noodled around with my brackets for the Tournament of Books, based partly on my own reading and partly on conversations I’ve seen about the books, I’ve almost always ended up with Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi up against The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead in the final round. And that was before I’d read Homegoing and realized what a fascinating match-up that would be. The authors both tackle slavery and its legacy, and they do so in ways that start off looking quite different but actually have a lot in common.

I’ve already written about The Underground Railroad, which I read as a time-travel novel that takes readers through the history of racism in America. The literal railroad of the book functions as a portal to different circumstances that, while occurring at the same time in the novel, occurred at different points in U.S. history. Homegoing also journeys through time, but Gyasi’s approach is less fantastic. She follows two families, generation by generation, from Africa to the U.S.

The novel begins with two half-sisters who’ve never met. Effia is born in Fanteland (a region in present-day Ghana). She hopes to marry the future chief of her village, but her mother has a different idea and schemes to have her married to a British man, one of the slavers at the Cape Coast Castle. And so Effia goes away from her village and lives comfortably, even if it’s not the live she’d dreamed of.

The other sister, Esi, is less fortunate. She was born in Asanteland, and her father, Big Man, was the best warrior in the village. But his status did not protect her when a group of Fante soldiers attacked her villages and collected prisoners to sell to the white men at the Cape Coast Castle. So Esi is imprisoned in the basement of the building where her unknown sister lives. And then she is taken away, onto a ship bound for America.

Each chapter introduces a new generation, alternating between Effia’s descendents in Africa and Esi’s in America. The chapters exist almost as a series of short stories, but knowing what came before enhances each story’s power. And curiosity about what will come creates a forward momentum that you don’t get in most short story collections.

Gyasi’s writing and her characterization are remarkable, especially in the early chapters. Each of the central characters felt vivid and fully realized, even though most of them only appear in a single chapter. If they do turn up later, it’s usually on the borders of another character’s story. The jumps through time show that even when there’s great progress, as in the giant step from slavery to freedom, that progress isn’t complete. It’s more like a movement from official slavery to unofficial slavery. And then there are instances where time allows people to grow in understanding of each other, as when a child returns to a lost mother.

The final chapters are somewhat less compelling than the earlier ones, partly, I suppose, because the stories they tell, so close to the present, don’t feel as fresh or new. There’s one generational jump in circumstances that seemed too drastic, without much set-up in the prior chapter. It felt like it was there to get the pieces in place for the final chapter, which is lovely but perhaps too tidy.

So if this were to land in the final against The Underground Railroad, where would my vote go? It would go with Gyasi, for sure. The writing and the characters are so much more vivid. I could understand that the Gulliver-esque journey of the Whitehead’s novel required a sort of bland everywoman character, and I appreciate the scope of history that he presents. But Gyasi’s scope is even more ambitious, and she carries it off beautifully. Both books are gut-wrenchingly painful at times, but in the case of this book, the pain came not just from the situation but from caring about these particular people. It’s a remarkable achievement of a book, especially for a debut. And I’m hoping to see it win the Rooster.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The Poisoned Chocolates Case

poisoned-chocolates-caseRoger Sheringham is feeling rather smug. He has achieved his goal: he has formed a Crimes Circle. This is a group of intelligent people who are interested in crime (a lawyer, a few brilliant writers, Roger himself, and Mr. Ambrose Chitterwick –and no one can quite decide why he was included.) They are assembled, along with a police superintendent, to solve a crime the police have given up on: the murder of Joan Bendix, who was poisoned with nitrobenzene when she ate some chocolates from a box given to her husband at his club.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley, is structured differently than almost any other mystery I’ve ever seen. Each chapter consists of a different member of the Crimes Circle coming forward and saying blushingly that he or she has absolutely certainly come up with the solution to the crime and the identity of the poisoner — how simple it all was! — followed by a foolproof explanation of the crime. Each chapter then concludes with another member of the group pointing out the flaws in the explanation, and Berkeley segues to the following, different, foolproof explanation. Each member uses a different style of deduction. Each member comes up with a different idea as to whodunit, and why. The last member — and this is clever — presents the group with a chart that shows all the possible poisoners, criminals, salient features, styles of deduction, and parallel cases that had been adduced in the Crimes Circle so far… before he solves the case for good.

Anthony Berkeley is a clever author. He also wrote mysteries (or really more like psychological thrillers) under the name Francis Iles, such as Before the Fact and Malice Aforethought. That latter is the book on which the Cary Grant-Joan Fontaine film Suspicion was based. (Brrrr. Although I find the book even creepier.) This book isn’t creepy — except insofar as the idea of being poisoned by a box of delicious chocolates is always creepy — but it’s light and fun. Slowly, chapter by chapter, the characters in the case are revealed to be not quite who we thought they were. And so are the detectives.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which could be read in a couple of hours at 200 or so pages. If you like Golden Age mysteries, wedge this into your list.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 4 Comments

The Truth About Small Towns

truth-about-small-townsLo these many years ago, Jeanne gave me a copy of this book of poetry by David Baker, who is someone who lives in her own small town. It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, because I don’t read nearly the amount of poetry I ought, and since January and February of this year have been Read All the TBR Books Months, I finally picked it up and read it. And I’m so glad I did. (It made miss Book Blogger Appreciation Week, though.)

Most of the poems in this volume start, and end, in the middle of something. They begin and end with words like Now or Again or And then. This is such a lovely way of hinting at the life of small towns: did they ever start, and will they ever end? They are always in the middle of some kind of evolution, changing customs, spreading out here and filling potholes there, changing slang, one neighborhood getting gentrified while another one is getting kind of seedy, young people leaving and other ones coming for the new business that moved in.

Baker’s poems reflect all this, the love, the history, the things you see when you take a walk, the strong presence of the women in town, what happens inside homes and behind closed doors. Not that this latter is twisted or dark; Baker doesn’t resort to this cliché. It’s just private, which is more heartwrenching than any cliché. These poems are intimate and small, and beautiful. It’s good that there aren’t more of them — they are a little bit samey — but what there is, is just right.

I’ll leave you with my favorite poem from the book, which is actually the very first one.

Top of the Stove

And then she would lift her griddle

tool from the kindling bin, hooking one

end through a hole in the cast-iron disk

to pry it up with a turn of her wrist.


Our faces pinked over to watch coal

chunks churn and fizz. This was before

I had language to say so, the flatiron

hot all day by the kettle, fragrance


of coffee and coal smoke over

the kitchen in a mist. What did I know?

Now they’ve gone. Language remains.

I hear her voice like a lick of flame


to a bone-cold day. Careful, she says.

I hold my head close to see what she means.


Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

The Mothers

We pray.

Not without ceasing, as Paul instructs, but often enough. On Sundays and Wednesdays, we gather in the prayer room and slip off jackets, leave shoes at the door and walk around in stocking feet, sliding a little like girls playing on waxed floors, We sit in a ring of white chairs in the center of the room and one of us reaching into the wooden box by the door stuffed with prayer request cards. Then we pray: for Earl Vernon, who wants his crackhead daughter to come home; Cindy Harris’s husband, who is leaving her because he’d caught her sending nasty photographs to her boss; Tracy Robinson, who has taken to drinking again, hard liquor at that; Saul Young, who is struggling to help his wife through the final days of her dementia. We read the request cards and we pray, for new jobs, new houses, new husband, better health, better-behaved children, more faith, more patience, less temptation.

the-mothersThe Mothers who narrate this debut novel by Brit Bennett are the church mothers at the Upper Room chapel in Oceanside, California. These mothers observe and pray and, for the purposes of the novel, act as a sort of Greek chorus as they observe the lives of three young people making the transition into adulthood.

Nadia Turner is 17, and her mother, who had Nadia at 17, has just committed suicide. Dazed and grieving, Nadia drinks and parties and eventually hooks up with Luke Sheppard. Nadia was supposed to be the first in her family to go to college, but then she becomes pregnant and fears ending up as unhappy as her mother.

Luke, 21, is the pastor’s son and a former football star. He now waits tables at a local fast food and is known to be kind of wild. As the Mothers observe, “You know what they say about pastors’ kids.”

And then there’s Aubrey Evans, also 17, and the perfect good girl type. She also has no mother, but that’s because she left, moving in with her sister and her sister’s girlfriend. Aubrey came to the Upper Room all on her own and has made herself part of the community, her purity ring signifying her commitment to staying “good.” She doesn’t tell anyone why this commitment is so important to her.

The novel follows these three young black people as they draw close to each other and drift apart and back again. The writing is wonderful, and I fell right into the novel in a way that is rare for me these days. I cared deeply for these characters, worrying over their mistakes and hoping they’d find their right paths, even when it wasn’t clear to me exactly what that path should be. I also appreciate that this is a book all about black lives without being a book all about race. We need more stories like this.

As much as I loved this book, I admit that the characters tend to be types, but they felt like real, flesh-and-blood examples of those types. The book employs a lot of common tropes, but Bennett does it so elegantly that I didn’t care. It’s a good story, well-told, even if it’s familiar.

And then there’s the ending, where Bennett subverts the Greek chorus narration just enough that I’m tempted to say it’s a twist, but that might leave you expecting too much. These women with their prayers turn out to be not just observers, but actors. It’s quite ingenious and left me even more satisfied with a book that I already thoroughly enjoyed.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 11 Comments

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

deer-hunting-with-jesusThanks to the election, a lot of liberals are taking an interest in the plight of the rural working class these days. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and White Trash by Nancy Isenberg have been the subject of many a review and think piece. I gave up on Hillbilly Elegy after a few chapters because it was more memoir than analysis, and the memoir wasn’t interesting me much. As for Isenberg’s book and similar ones, as someone who grew up in the rural white working class, I’m uncomfortable with the anthropological approach of an outsider swooping in for a brief period and claiming to have the answers. (I may still read White Trash and Strangers in Their Own Land at some point, but I’m hesitant.) I decided I’d rather go in a different direction and read some Joe Bageant, a writer much praised by Citizen Reader.

Published in 2007, this book is a collection of essays about Bageant’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, a town in the northernwestern part of Virginia. Bageant grew up there but moved away for 30 years before returning late in life. His political views are liberal, and he writes with compassion and sometimes frustration about the people he grew up with and how the Republican party has convinced them that their party has the answers, even when it doesn’t.

You might think that a book written in 2007 would be ridiculously dated by now, but, for the most part, this feels more prescient than out-of-date. For instance, there’s this from a section on the importance of education:

Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution. It is no accident that number corresponds roughly to the percentage of people with college degrees. So intelligent liberals are advised to save their depression and the good booze for later, when things get worse.

Until those with power and access decide that it’s beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots. And that means educating everybody, not just the small-town valedictorian or the science nerds who are cherry-picked out of the schools in places like Winchester or more rural areas. These people end up in New York or Houston or Boston—places where they can buy boutique coffees or go to the art cinema—holding down jobs in broadcasting or research or economics.

I’m guessing that if Bageant were still alive, he’d think this was the time we were supposed to be saving that good booze for. So there’s that. And the point about education is a good one. I was lucky enough to live in a rural county that valued education and supported a large high school with more offerings for its smartest students than you’d find in many rural areas. (When I went to college, I learned about areas where we were lacking, but we did well with what we had.) But even so, there were lots of kids who graduated with barely enough knowledge to get by. And, as far as I know, only a few of the top-performing students from my graduating class live in the area now. The brain drain is real.

What’s more, as Bageant describes and my own experience bears out, there is suspicion of higher education in some rural communities. After I went away to college, I returned to my hometown to teach high school for a couple of years. I’d lost some of my accent, and I used correct grammar when speaking (although that was always true), and some students immediately branded me an outsider not worth listening to. One student was convinced my family wasn’t from the area even though my roots there went back generations—and those roots were not from the county’s upper classes. So education can make rural areas uncomfortable places to live, which further exacerbates the brain drain problem.

Bageant also talks about how much more effective the political right has been at getting their message into rural areas. For example, people on the factory floor listen to right-wing talk radio all day long. NPR may be available, but it doesn’t hold the same appeal. There’s a chicken or egg quandary here that Bageant doesn’t get into. Personally, I think the right-wing media exacerbates tendencies that are already there, but not necessarily to toxic levels. So someone who worries a little about how immigration affects their employment gets a drumbeat of information that makes them terrified and furious about immigration.

At any rate, Bageant maintains that the left isn’t nearly as effective as it should be at getting the message out about how the rich are screwing over the poor. In the political scene, for instance, Bush had photo ops of himself clearing brush in Crawford, while John Kerry’s photos showed him wind-surfing in Martha’s Vineyard. Who seems more relatable to factory workers in Winchester?

Some of Bageant’s harshest words are directed at the corporate class, and he’s not just talking about CEOs of big companies. He also makes digs at local business people who don’t pay the small-time contractors who work for them and local governments that offer generous tax breaks to companies that don’t need them while neglecting the needs of their poorest citizens. And those citizens are taught to feel grateful for the terrible jobs and low pay that they receive.

I found most of Bageant’s ideas interesting and well worth thinking about. And he has an enjoyably informal tone. (Trae Crowder, aka the Liberal Redneck, is similar in tone but with a lot more cussing.)

The only chapter that really fell short for me was the one on guns, and I think this one suffered from 10 years of time. Bageant makes some good points about how liberals writing gun-control laws really ought to know more about guns. But he seems to be arguing against a straw gun control advocate who is anti-gun in every situation, always and forever. Such people exist, but they are not most people, or even most gun-control advocates. Most people in the U.S. are in favor of some degree of gun control, rather than outright bans. The debate among reasonable people is over how much regulation is appropriate. Unfortunately, by owning so much of Congress, the unreasonable, corporate-controlled NRA owns that debate.

I also wish Bageant had dug a little deeper into the racism around him. If he were alive today, I think he might. In 2007, racism was present, but further underground than it is now. Bageant clearly disapproves of racism, but he doesn’t look very hard at it. And at one point, when someone he’s talking to makes a racist comment about her Indian doctor, he even seem to go along with it. It turns out this particular doctor probably wasn’t doing a good job, but generalizing out to all the immigrant doctors in rural communities is unfair. That part was disappointing.

However, on other subjects, Bageant is right on. Much to my surprise, the chapter on healthcare holds up surprisingly well. He doesn’t discuss specific policies so much as he does the impossible choices poor people have to make, and those choices remain real, even if the specifics of the policies behind them have changed. And his chapter on Christian fundamentalism is especially good. It also ends with some hopeful commentary, drawn partly from the work of Fred Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy:

The very nature of liberalism, with its emphasis on diversity and individuality, makes it hard to organize. The bigger problem, though, is that liberals, like most other Americans, have lost the skill of grassroots organizing, not to mention the will. Clarkson observes, “Every good citizen should learn how to be a good activist—or a good candidate. Yes, it may mean making some choice, like less television and surfing the Internet. But that is how a constitutional democracy is organized. That’s the way it works. If we abandon the playing field to the other side, they win by default.”

These last few weeks have shown that liberals are gaining the skill and the will to organize and act. Let’s keep that up!

Posted in Nonfiction | 18 Comments